Top 5 Archaeology Discoveries in the American West of 2015

People have been living in the American West for at least 13,000 years, but every year brings new insights, and new surprises, about our history. Because archaeologists continue to dig, survey, and analyze, turning up new data with every shovelful.

Some finds that they’ve made are striking because of their sheer age or complexity.

Others are positively grim, and even regrettable.

And every now and then they find something that we just don’t fully understand, at least yet.

Each of these elements appears in the five most popular articles we published in 2015 about the archaeology of the West.

Together they cover territory from Alberta to the Mojave Desert, and they document times as ancient as the oldest stone-tool technology, and as recent as our own lifetimes.

You vaulted these five pieces of research into our annual Top 5 countdown because you — hundreds of thousands of you — read and shared them.

So no matter who you are, or where you live, these stories are all part of your shared history.


5. Site of Deadliest Native American Massacre Identified

Bear River Massacre mural
A mural in the Preston, Idaho, post office, painted by Edmond J. Fitzgerald in 1941, commemorates “The Battle at Bear River.” (Photo courtesy U.S. Postal Service)

The list begins with new insights we gained this year into one of the most bitter episodes in the history of the American West: the largest single massacre of Native Americans in the United States.

Known as the Bear River Massacre, the event unfolded shortly after dawn on a frozen January morning in 1863, across the banks of the Bear River in southeastern Idaho.

There, members of the California Volunteers raided the winter camp of the Northwestern Band of Shoshone and opened fire, killing as many as 250 men, women, and children.

While the event itself became notorious soon enough, its exact location has been lost to history.

But this year, archaeologist Dr. Ken Cannon and his colleagues reported that they had likely identified the site of the Shoshone camp.

Read on to discover what archaeologists found on the banks of the Bear River, what the future may be for the site, and how the researchers’ work will again make visible this once lost chapter of Western history.

4. Ring-Tab Beer Cans Are Now Officially Historic Artifacts

Depending on how old you are, you probably found our fourth most popular article to be either funny, surprising, or simply depressing.

It’s just a matter of whether you’re old enough to remember the ring-tab beer can.

beer can pull ring tab
The ring-tab beer can — first introduced in 1965 — is now considered a ‘historic-era artifact.’

As archaeologist William Schroeder pointed out, the ring-tab pull design turned 50 this year, which means that the countless thousands of pull tabs that still litter the West can officially be considered historic artifacts.

“Once an artifact attains the 50-year threshold, it is eligible to be recorded as an archaeological site or an isolated find in most states,” Schroeder said.

As a result, these simple strips of aluminum can be used to determine whether a site is a half-century old or more — useful not only for dating a site, but also for providing evidence as to whether it’s old enough to receive protection as an official historic site.

Read more about this thin sliver of America’s material cultural history, and learn about the site that was deemed “historic” thanks to its scattering of ring-tab beer cans.

3. 9,000 Artifacts Uncovered in California, Spanning 11,500 Years of History

Our Number Three report took the prize for covering the widest swath of history of any research we covered this year.

Earlier this spring, archaeologists reported on decades’ worth of research conducted at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in the Mojave Desert of California, one of the largest military installations in the country.

There, researchers turned up evidence of human occupation spanning 11,500 years, from the remains of a tool-making site dated to the 13th century CE, to big and beautiful stone points that experts said are “classic” examples of the Clovis style.

What’s more, the wealth of artifacts found throughout the base revealed a peak of human activity from 7,000 to 9,000 years ago — the same time when a decrease in activity appears in the archaeological record several hundred kilometers away, in the northern Great Basin.

Check out the story to see some of the ancient artifacts and learn more about what they may tell us about life and migration in the prehistoric Mojave Desert.

2. 2,500-Year-Old Bison-Kill Site Sheds Light on Ancient Culture of Northern Plains

The second most viewed story of the year provided a rare glimpse into a poorly-understood culture of the ancient Northern Plains.

Just north of the Montana border among the sand dunes of southern Alberta, archaeologists discovered an unusual bison-kill site dating back more than 2,500 years.

The most abundant artifacts were more than 200,000 fragments of bison bone, comprising the remains of dozens of animals that were butchered.

Fincastle bison bone-upright
Among the most striking features discovered at the site were eight arrangements of bison bones found standing on end, perched in precise, almost sculptural patterns. Their purpose remains unclear. (Photo courtesy Shawn Bubel)

But the site also turned up even more unusual finds, including more than hundred stone points, most of them fashioned from a type of rock found a thousand kilometers away in North Dakota and — most striking of all — eight arrangements of bison bones found standing on end, perched in precise, almost sculptural patterns.

Read on to learn about the cultural group that used this site, and what experts make of the fascinating traces they left behind.

1. 10,000-Year-Old Tool Site Discovered in Suburban Seattle

Finally, Western Digs’ top archaeology story of the year caught everyone by surprise, including the archaeologists who made the discovery — an ancient find at one of the most developed places in the West.

This spring, archaeologists working along a streambed in Redmond, Washington reported their discovery of a tool-making site dating back more than 10,000 years.

Bear Creek Washington stone points
Two concave bases and a stemmed base are among the fragments of stone tools, dated to more than 10,000 years old, found at the site. (Courtesy R. Kopperl/PaleoAmerica)

Consisting of thousands of flakes, bifaces, scrapers, hammerstones, and projectile points, the site is the oldest of its kind ever found in western Washington — a region previously deemed to be “uninteresting” when it came to the study of Ice Age America.

But the work by Dr. Robert Kopperl and his colleagues proved that traces of ancient history still are still waiting to be found, even in the shadow of Microsoft headquarters.

Have a look at the artifacts Kopperl and his team found, and learn what clues they may hold to how people lived in the prehistoric Northwest at the end of the last Ice Age.

Did your favorite find wind up in our top five?

What discoveries this year did you think were the most important? [While you’re at it, check out the top 5 archaeological finds of 2014, too.]

Join the discussion in the comments below, and thanks to all 1.5 million of you who came to Western Digs in the past year to learn more about the human and natural history of the land we love.

You’re why this site exists, so spread the word, and gear up for an enlightening 2016!

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